Wagon wheel

I spent two majestic weeks in the United States. A crystalline spring day in New York City; a roadtrip looping southwest – Asheville, Roanoke, Morgantown, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Baltimore – and a second one from New York to Boston.

For the first week I hiked in mountains, ate chicken biscuits and southern barbecue, and sang ‘Country Roads’ on country roads. I saw two landmarks of American architecture: the Biltmore Estate, designed by Frederick Olmsted, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Olmsted, already creator of New York City’s Central Park, had worked on the Estate at the same time as he designed the Chicago Midway for the World Fair of 1893. A circuit of a mere two floors of the main building was a half day walk; waiting in the exit hall at the end a teenager emerged from inside and flopped down in a chair and yawned, Jesus Christ, like a cat. Fallingwater meanwhile had been home to one of 20th century America’s richest families, the Kaufmanns, and was all graceful angles and equilibriums. The interior felt like being inside the world’s most lavish game of Jenga, tastefully decorated and bearing modest masterworks on the walls: a Hokusai, two Riveras, a Picasso. I flirted mildly with the tour guide, a handsome middle-aged lady whose name tag said Karen O, although she wasn’t that Karen O.

I returned to New York City where I bumped into a beloved Aunt and was plied with coffee and cake, and then met an old friend who rented a fast car and zoomed me around New York State, through syrup factories and stately college towns and into Massachusetts. In Boston we spent most of our time in aggressive confrontation with road transit infrastructure which appeared to have been designed by toddlers, but also found time for cocktails, a tour of the harbour, and the soaring monument of Bunker Hill. And then it was time to go home. Not that I had a home.

A week later I was standing in the interior of a tiny prefab office in Djiboutiville like a bat in a cave sheltering from the searing outside, and through a Perspex barrier a fat lady was holding in her left hand my Residency Card. Her right hand was holding a biro and she waved it around as she talked to the woman sitting opposite her, two ladies who gesticulated and swivelled and nodded but whose backs and bottoms may as well have been fused to their office chairs for all their actual bodies moved. She had a ledger in front of her with a little empty box at the end of a row that had my details written in in blue handwriting. The Residency Card was the culmination of two months’ worth of form-filling, fingerprinting, what felt like a dozen passport photographs, letters of request and invitation and guarantee from my organisation, and week after week of processing, but it still wasn’t authorised.

Without this card I would have to queue and pay and fill in forms and be thoroughly securitised in order to be physically present in Djibouti, or, theoretically speaking, risk arrest and detention. With it I would be able to enter the same space without hindrance. There is a kind of transubstantiation going on here, where the base material of plastic cards and ink on paper becomes instilled with the power of the Law, and it is ontological and woozy. The lady’s pen was swaying maybe thirty centimetres from the page and in this moment the fabric of my reality stretched a little. I could feel the walls bending around the movements of the biro. The lady finished her sentence and looked down, brought the biro down, and wrote in the empty box. She leant forward from her shoulders only and hovered the card near a hole in the Perspex. I took it. “Good” barked Mohamed. Mohamed was the office driver and the kind of guy who wound his window down to shout at beggars. He was thoroughly bored of ferrying me back and forth to administrative offices around the city. That was it. I was a resident.

The walls snapped into shape.


Regarding exit

After four straight weeks in Mogadishu, for reasons that were never entirely clear I was sent to Hargeisa. For one week I stayed in a hotel and texted friends excitedly that my bathroom had hot water. For the next I stayed in the work guesthouse and was sorry to find the cats had all moved on. For the middle six of ten working days I sat in all-day meetings, 8 to 5, that mostly had very little to do with my work. I volunteered as minute taker in order to keep awake. One of the meetings was an induction, to which I was scornful of being invited until I arrived in the meeting room and found a Somali lady who had been in the organisation for ten years. She had never been inducted until now either.

I went to a party and a restaurant and both times had to send a Sorry email to the Security team for being caught returning home after curfew. Curfew is 9pm. It was better than Mogadishu but Vegas it was not.

What non-meeting time was available I mostly spent locked in administrative death grips with the Ayatollah of HR in DRC’s Somalia Office, a tiny lady with an sweet smile whose pedantry has been known to bring staff to tears. Applying for either Annual Leave or R’n’R takes two separate paperwork processes that have to be signed by a number of people in precisely the right order. If you would like to combine R’n’R with Annual Leave, as I did, you have to submit four separate pieces of paper with a total 14 layers of approval, each in the right order both within and between the four documents. There is, as you can imagine, a great deal of scope for pedantry in this procedure, and woe to any innocent Knowledge Management Officer who imagines that no-one really minds if you get one or two of the 14 layers of approval out of order.

Emerging at the end of two weeks barely alive but with my R’n’R and Annual Leave approved, I offered ambrosial thanks to HR for their kind assistance and fled to Kenya. I spent four days in a cottage outside Nairobi sleeping, listening to the radio, and reading, and thought about things other than work. It was good.


From there I went to Ethiopia, where my sister and a close friend from London were meeting me for a long-planned holiday. We spent ten days together and it was wonderful. We ate pizzas and dish after dish of Ethiopian food, danced in bars, compared ourselves to skeletons of the first human ancestors in the Natural History Museum, took a bus journey that we thought was from Addis Ababa but apparently was from Hades itself, saw castles, vultures, waterfalls, and baboons, got 3,700 metres above sea level, played cards with mountain guides, and drank little Ethiopian coffees boiled on charcoal stoves shared with incense. We didn’t get robbed or get sick. Everything that could have gone well, went well. Such holidays are a rare thing, and it will live long in the memory.

At the end, it was back to Somalia. I returned to work in Mogadishu with three weeks left on my contract. To my disappointment, but not my surprise, there was nothing in my inbox about it. No offer of an extension, no notification that an extension was not being offered. I wrote an email to my boss and two other people stating my end date and saying I hoped they were aware. My boss wrote back and asked if I was intending on staying, to which I said no, and asked what would happen in that case. He sent this:

>>From: M
>>Sent: 11 September 2017 15:51
>>To: Dominic Naish
>>Cc: S and J
>>Subject: RE: My contract ends on 4th October

>>Dear Dominic,

>>Ok, thank you for your response.

>>Regarding exit, there is normal procedure that HR would introduce you to.

>>I have copied in R so she can inform you about the process




And that was it. 12 months of employment wrapped up in three or four short sentences. Later the same week, M, my boss, told enquirers that I’d quit. This past week I have sat in an office on my own filling out departure paperwork. I had an exit interview with HQ and a final meeting with a Director on Friday, but at this stage even a sympathetic ear won’t make much difference. I feel weary and resentful of being treated so dismissively, and angry at my boss in a way I haven’t been since at school and being angry at unkind teachers.

Still. The benefit of such an abrupt ending is that it will be over soon. And I have to remember, and not take for granted, the many great privileges this last year have brought me, in learning and growing my professional skills, meeting people, and seeing some remarkable parts of the world. I hope in time that the management I’ve experienced will similarly feel like a benefit, as you surely learn more when things are tough than when everything goes smoothly. For the time being, though, this chapter is closing, and soon I will be able to look on it with hindsight.


What I’m listening to:

  • Angelo Badalamenti, “Dance of the Dream Man”
  • Kwesta, “Ngud”
  • Martina Topley-Bird, Quixotic
  • The National, Trouble Will Find Me
  • The Seraphims, “The Consciousness of Happening”
  • Synthesise the Soul: Astro-Atlantic Hypnotica from the Cape Verde Islands 1973-1988

What I’m reading:

  • Still Tristes Tropiques
  • Edith Warton, The Age of Innocence
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
  • Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm
  • John Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven

White Pearl

“I hate travelling and explorers” grouches Lévi-Strauss, famous traveller and explorer, at the start of Tristes Tropiques. I am beginning to agree with him.

Ethiopia fell through, involving a trip to Knightsbridge from Addis Ababa, which was a long way to go for a botched visa process. My patience failed; I wrote to my boss and said it wasn’t possible to work like this. He responded that the job comes with a level of uncertainty and I should question whether I could live with that. After a few days of ill-tempered exchange, he handed me over to the Somalia team and returned to ignoring me completely. I spent two weeks in UK, 10 days in Kenya, and then moved to Somalia.

Bouncing between countries with such frequency and so little planning was beginning to tell. I found myself forgetting the names and jobs of colleagues that I know fairly well, and getting a gluey, cold-like illness every time I took an aeroplane. Keeping in touch with friends began to slide, as I barely knew myself where I was and what I was doing. As I write, the plan for getting me a work permit in Somalia has already derailed and I have a meeting with a senior staff member next week to come up with a contingency plan. I am tired of being so poorly managed.

The upside of being an accessory to this mélange is getting to go to unusual places. I have spent the past three weeks in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city, and a site of some mystique to me ever since my brother lent me a copy of Black Hawk Down as a teenager. Peering through the gaps in the fence on the roof I can see the checkpoint at Kilometre 4, the south-west corner of the blocks within which the US Rangers’ mission unravelled in 1993.


The DRC compound contains an office and a guesthouse within a few paces of each other. The compound’s four-metre-high walls are lined on the inside with metre-thick concrete blast absorbers, topped with razor wire, and manned in each corner by an armed guard. Inside, entrance doors are lined with reinforced steel. Moving from the dark of armoured corridors to the white light of the Indian Ocean coast is hard on the eyes, and a well-timed sweep of sunglasses from the top of my head to my eyes is an essential skill.

International staff are not allowed out. The only time you leave the compound is to go to the airport, either for a flight or a meeting – Mogadishu International Airport, MIA, is the heart of the Green Zone and the hub of all international activity in South Central Somalia. Unlike Hargeisa, here DRC has an armoured car, which is mostly used as shade for the office cats as it stays parked conveniently close to the kitchens. Unusually for an NGO vehicle, it isn’t marked. Anything referring to Denmark is a bad idea in Somalia: you may have forgotten the Danish cartoonist who drew the Prophet in 2005/2006, but Al Shabaab have not.


Being in such an enclosed space gives time a cyclical feel: the unchanging (unchangeable) daily routine (breakfast-office-lunch-office-dinner-evening-sleep), the guards running loops around the guesthouse, the office smoke detectors that let you know they’re on by emitting a staccato bip at fire-alarm volume every couple of minutes all creating a sense of circularity. I watch the fan go round on my bedroom ceiling and fancy myself as Captain Willard in Saigon, waiting to go into the jungle.

The guesthouse itself is very comfortable. At first the TV was fixed to one channel only, and we watched a great deal of coverage of the build-up to the Kenyan elections, but now it’s back to a full array of satellite options. Internet is slow but reliable, and water is usually available, if not always strong enough to have a proper shower or flush a toilet. It’s warm enough that the fact the showers are unheated is not an issue. Food is provided three times a day.

I spend my evenings and weekends reading, listening to music, and running on a senescent treadmill whose belt sticks and skids on the mill unless your weight falls in just the right place. I’ve started doing equipment-free workouts, and am vaguely perturbed by the idea that my housemates can hear me choosing to spend my free time being shouted at by enthusiastic YouTubers. One of my good friends has been here virtually the whole time I have, which makes a huge difference: being so enclosed with a random selection of colleagues can be wearing.

Not always, though – one more gregarious workmate organised a barbecue on the roof during his short stay, somehow arranging a delivery of meat, bread, cheese, and charcoal that he fired up as the sun set last week. We were not many and nor were we a natural group of friends, but doing something different, with good food and the sound of the AMISOM troops practising in the firing range nearby, was a highlight of my stay.


It should also be said that Mogadishu is beautiful. I can’t go out and see it, of course, but from the roof I can see green avenues lined with white architecture, inspired by the city’s Italian and Persian heritage, which also gives it its name: Mogadishu is believed to derive from the Persian Maq’adi Shah, the seat of the Shah. In more recent times, before the civil war that erupted in the 1990s, it was known as The White Pearl of the Indian Ocean. The weather is delightful, and the long white beach that lies behind the airport is reportedly sheltered by a reef. In another life, it would be a tourist’s dream. Like Kabul and Baghdad, though, the city has lost decades to avarice and destruction.

I can stay here another nine days, and then visa issues begin again. My plan to get work from other colleagues in the de facto absence of a boss worked for a few weeks, but is now getting a little stretched. Both of these things will resolve in some way, but I look forward to a job where I don’t have to constantly force through a plan to have work to do and a country to stay in. I also look forward to a hot shower and going for a walk. I quite like Mogadishu, though, and would not at all mind coming back.


What I’m listening to:

  • Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington and Mulligan Meets Monk
  • Sonny Rollins, Sonny Rollins & The Modern Jazz Quartet
  • Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Ears
  • Sudan Archives, Sudan Archives EP
  • Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II

What I’m reading:

  • Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
  • Ronald F Thiemann, The Humble Sublime
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques
  • William Gibson, Neuromancer
  • David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster
  • Stephen King, Carrie

A rudimentary stage of construction

“I hope you’re having fun, and not too sad!” This was the parting sentence of a voice message left me by a European friend, the unorthodox English as so often neatly capturing the sentiment, midway between my last blog entry and this one. She was responding to the information that since the two weeks of holiday that followed my last update, I have been struggling in an almost total vacuum at work, unable to stay in one country for longer than a few weeks and adrift in my professional remit.

Leave had been wonderful: a succession of friends and family and time in England, Wales, and Scotland packed into an expeditious two weeks, but was soured by a desperately disorganised return to work. In the handover from one boss to another all the things that had been repeatedly promised before I went away were simply not done; no visa, no contract, no job description, nothing.

In the end I went to Kenya as a kind of default option. I had two meetings with my new boss: in the first he told me the reason my paperwork was undone was that I wasn’t a priority, and in the second he removed around 70% of my job description (that I had written) because he didn’t see the value in it. He didn’t replace it with anything, but said there might be something for me to do around July. Two months later, that remains the last interaction I’ve had with him.

I’m now writing from Kenya again, with thirty of the intervening days between then and now spent in Ethiopia. Mercifully the majority of those thirty days were busy, the Ethiopian Country Director and Head of Programmes keen to take advantage of my presence and largely undefined purpose. For three weeks or so I was involved in research and analysis on internally displaced people and refugees in Ethiopia; hardly my area, but I found with a modicum of direction and structure I was suddenly able to be effective again, and enjoyed it.

Addis Ababa itself is somewhat less developed than I had framed it. Very safe, yes, and home to a huge number of UN, African Union, and East African regional government bodies, but also dirty, lacking in infrastructure, and short on things to do. Meeting people has accordingly been slower than in many other cities, and I was grateful for four whole weeks in a row to begin to establish some tentative friendships. Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the city is its expansion. I was amazed to read Evelyn Waugh writing in 1930 on a visit to Addis that “The whole town seemed still in a rudimentary stage of construction. At every corner were half-finished buildings…” – this is exactly my impression of it today, nearly a full century later. I look forward to discovering the city a little more fully over the coming months.

I realised recently that my challenge was not to elicit the fundamentals of management, but to incorporate the absence of management into a structure that allows me to work. It took me a while. July brings the vague promise of new projects, but in my lack of faith in external factors I have enlisted two friends in more senior positions to give me their excess tasks. The hope is that this will provide me with a steady source of things to do, not worrying too much about whether I’m “supposed” to be doing them or not, and enable me to be constructive without requiring anyone’s time.

The subsequent challenge is to break out of the lethargy that I’ve sunk into over the last few months. I haven’t been able to stay in one country for more than a few weeks since the turn of the year. That may sound dynamic or exciting, but in truth it’s draining, especially as it’s the result of disorganisation and a lack of will to do anything about it rather than being driven by goals. Even worse has been the lack of a clear role. The combination has become dislocating and demotivating, and in this brief few days in Kenya my objective is to work on my mental approach to the coming months. I have one more week here, another week in Addis, 48 hours in UK, and then (hopefully) will be able to stay in Ethiopia for a few months at least. I want to make the best of it.


What I’m listening to:

  • Dorothy Ashby, In a Minor Groove
  • Antoine Brumel, Missa Et Ecce Terrae Motus
  • The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico

What I’m reading:

  • Peter Godwin, Mukiwa
  • Kate Fox, Watching the English
  • (Finally finished) Aeneid
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor
  • Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute
  • Olivia Laing, The Lonely City




I flew to Hargeisa on a Saturday and left for work at 7.15 on Sunday morning. Losing a weekend ordinarily would be a cause for resentment, but in this case minimising empty time was a good thing. There is very little to do in Hargeisa, especially if you don’t have an established group of contacts outside one’s own organisation, so half a day to unpack was about right. There was no food in the house when I arrived: meals were provided twice a day, but not on Fridays and Saturdays. Typically of DRC/DDG, no-one tells new arrivals this. I ate bread found in one of the fridges.

The guesthouse is a spacious two storey building, unusually for Somaliland without an accessible roof but with a little terraced area outside. There are 11 bedrooms, but during my stay there were never more than seven filled. Guesthouse life meant that only one person was there for the duration of my stay: around ten other people in total arrived, left, or did both during what turned out to be only four weeks.

The office had changed since my last trip. We stopped renting the old complex, what had previously been a school, and moved into a three storey office block. Happily it was much closer to the guesthouse, although until I arrived and put my foot down the driver still arrived at the same time, 7.15am, making us some 40 minutes early to work every day. The new office was very new, the concrete stairs noticeably uneven, the water supply barely reaching to my second floor. Outside my office was a balcony upon which mugs, flasks, teaspoons, a box of teabags, and a jar of Nescafe and sugar were presented at 9am every day. One of the flasks contained Somali tea, which is delicious. It tastes strongly of cloves and so sweet it makes me wince.


We had our bags searched thoroughly, every zip and pocket checked, and were metal-detected before the gate into the office is unlocked for us, one at a time. A herd of camels walked past my window most mornings at around tea time. I shared an office with Muhamed Ismael, Mukhtar, and Ismael Abdi. Later we were joined by a charming Pakistani who also moved into the guesthouse and I did much of exploring of Hargeisa with. Mukhtar helped me with hello, good morning, thank you, and goodbye in Somali, and tried to teach me see you tomorrow, a formidable composition which proved a step too far. Muhamed Ismael sheepishly admitted to being an Arsenal fan and after much investigation and phone calls added me to the office Fantasy Football league. I am 13th.


I was underworked, sadly for the context. The days were nine hours long because the Somalis stopped for prayer breaks and had an hour for lunch. Lunch for the internationals was brought from the guesthouse in little metal lunchboxes, and was usually rice or pasta with fish or vegetables. I ate on the balcony. January and February is winter in Somaliland so it was not as hot as envisioned; I usually wore a jumper or jacket.

Free time in Hargeisa was a different beast. Much of my week revolved around managing long stretches of time with nothing to do. Normally something to be maximised and looked forward to, here it was not exactly avoided but was certainly treated warily. Going out to a restaurant or friend’s compound was possible, but only around once a week, if that. Otherwise we were confined to the guesthouse. On my one excursion out of the office to a conference at a hotel I met a middle-aged man working for one of the EU’s maritime organs. He had been in Hargeisa for a year and a half and compared it unfavourably with being in prison. “At least there you know you didn’t choose to be there,” he said, half joking.

As an introvert I coped better than many; I read a lot, wrote, listened to music, ran on a treadmill for the first time. On the weekends I sat outside in the sun and watched with delight the weaver birds, Borussia Dortmund yellow and black, building their magical cocoons in the tree, being reminded of poring over my dad’s bird books as a child. One of the seven cats, Elán, the largest, oldest, and most domesticated, adopted me. He had belonged de facto to the previous Country Director and clearly missed the attention. I remember her saying that the cats were therapeutic, and they were: as I stroked Elán, feeling how fluid and cephalopodic he was compared to a dog, it occurred to me that living in such a conservative society meant physical contact was absolutely minimal. I would occasionally shake hands with other men, and that was it. Elán demanded my attention, sitting on my laptop keyboard or shoving himself against my book until I tickled his ears or chin, at which he would sink his claws into my legs in delight and start purring like a helicopter.


I was happier. The weather was good, the food was good, the Somalis were lovely. Work was a little slow but I was glad to be away from the politics of Nairobi. Hargeisa began to grow on me: it has restaurants and coffee shops, good ones, and I had a couple of friends in other organisations. I would go over to Mine Action Group or HALO and drink smuggled whiskey on their rooves, listening to the de-miners swapping stories about Afghanistan and Iraq and partaking in the curious self-effacing humour of the humanitarian community. The curfew was 9pm, unless you had an armoured car, which, as I heard no end of, HALO did and we didn’t. I rode in one a couple of times: they look normal, but the doors are so heavy it takes two hands to move them.

After four weeks, though, I began to feel the tentacles of cabin fever. I wanted to go for a walk or out for a drink. I was living with a handful of middle-aged men of varying degrees of personability, and missed my women friends. My work permit was still processing but I had another three weeks in Somaliland before my annual leave, and then would be based there until October.


And then we had a security incident. The news arrived on a Thursday afternoon and we were instructed not to leave the guesthouse for the weekend. On Tuesday I received an email from my boss and 48 hours later I arrived blinking back in Nairobi. My work permit was rejected.

Having had too little to do in Hargeisa, Nairobi was a shock. The boss was leaving and the organisation going through a significant restructure. I was put in a meeting with two Regional Advisers and told that management didn’t have the capacity to “spar with us” as much as they would like; with an average age of 29 and a combined 11 months of service in the organisation, we were designated a “self-managing team”. I worked until 8 or 10pm most nights that week. I couldn’t stay long; Nairobi was over its limit of foreign staff, Hargeisa obviously not an option, Kampala was full, and Mogadishu was judged unwise given the elections there had only just finished. I was sent to Addis Ababa. On a tourist visa, I have now spent a week sitting in a guesthouse on my own. I have four more days here before a much needed break in UK.

What I’m listening to:

  • Sybille Baier, Colour Green
  • Riton ft. Kah-Lo, “Rinse and Repeat”
  • Card on Spokes, As We Surface EP
  • Sons of Kemet, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do
  • Burial, Untrue

What I’m reading:

  • Still Aeneid
  • Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils
  • Emmanuel Katangole, The Sacrifice of Africa

Challenging environments

After a 48-hour turnaround in Nairobi I flew to Lodwar, capital of Kenya’s north-western Turkana County. I was to spend ten days there interviewing staff in our field offices about the cross-border work they’d been doing with Uganda. It was only a 90-minute flight but landing was like arriving in another hemisphere: Turkana is essentially desert. The ground shimmered in the sun.

I was welcomed by Raphael, the burly, good-natured Programme Manager, who introduced me to four somewhat sullen staff and Pius the driver. Pius spoke no English apart from “fine” and “seatbelt”. I stayed a couple of days in Lodwar, little more than a village really, with three or four tarmacked roads that simply stopped and turned to murram near the edges of town. It was dusty. The electricity failed several times a day, sometimes for five or six hours at a time, taking the air conditioning with it. The normal daytime temperature was 36ᴼ.


I stayed in the grandly named County Palace, a little hotel complex past the Save the Children compound and opposite a smartly hand-painted road sign indicating Lumpy Bumpy Lane. County Palace had half a dozen little huts, some single-occupancy, some double, surrounding a spacious courtyard with plastic deck tables and single speaker that broadcast Radio Maisha every waking hour. Radio Maisha appeared to deal mostly in jingles and adverts, and loudly promoted phone-in competitions with cash prizes of ten to a hundred dollars. The A/C in my room was jammed on 29ᴼ. Dinner took two to three hours to prepare, even when it comprised no more than a stack of chapatti and a plate of oily spinach. Some mornings I awoke to the brief, desperate squalling of the day’s chicken attempting to resist the inevitable.

The next eight days were two whiplash circular field trips out of Lodwar into the desert. For the first I was part of a three-vehicle convoy with staff from two other NGOs. We drove south, stopping at Lokichar, Kainuk, and Nakwamoru before looping back north through Lomeremudang. We sped through the desert at sixty kilometres an hour, criss-crossing each other’s dust clouds and listening to execrable techno mixes on the stereo. Some of the villages we passed were scarcely believable, tiny clusters of huts a hundred miles from anywhere. Some of them were riddled with bullet holes. How did their occupants get water? What did they do when they got sick? We passed herds of goats, fat and brisk, and occasional groups of languorous camels.

After three days we returned to Lodwar, a booming metropolis of civilisation with wifi, running water, and roads as smooth as waterslides. Over that weekend I bade goodbye to the staff from the other organisations and was lucky to be able to visit Lake Turkana, hidden behind a row of palm trees that sprouted abruptly in the middle of the desert two hours from Lodwar. The lake was vast, big as a sea, and so flat that people, Jesus-like, a hundred metres in had water barely over their ankles.

Four more days in the pickup followed, looping east this time, towards the Ugandan border. The driver had a mixtape of ten tracks, two each by Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jermaine Stewart, Whitney Houston, and Rick Astley, that he played on repeat for the duration. I saw Mount Moroto, the burned-out husk of a truck that had caught the sharp edge of an inter-clan dispute (“These are not serious guys,” scoffed Ekuwam; “if they were Kikuyu they all would have been back tomorrow to collect the metal to sell”), and a mine where ex-raiders were pulling rubies from 30 feet within the earth. I learned how to eat ugali, a kind of super-viscous porridge, by rolling it into a ball with my fingertips, pressing with my thumb, scooping a mouthful of beans or greens into the depression, and hoisting it neatly into my mouth. It was a privilege. Nonetheless, by the final couple of days I was missing my friends, tired of being bitten relentlessly by ants, mosquitoes, and flies, wearied by the heat, and irritable at spending four to eight hours a day being smashed around in the back of a four wheel drive. I was glad when the trip was over.

It was to be my last travel for some time. Shivering in the Baltic 19ᴼ of Nairobi, I returned to the office and my project on summarising the learning from our borderlands projects. I worked alone and largely unsupervised: a number of personnel changes left me reporting to three people who each deflected me on to another, resulting in a near total lack of communication. For five weeks in a row I sat at my computer and shuffled information around. It was rainy season. I tired of living with colleagues, whom I started my day with at breakfast at 7am, sat next to in the minibus that arrives like an automaton at 7.20 every morning, sat next to in the office for eight hours, and then came home and spent the evening in the living room with. It made it hard to switch off from work, and work was frustrating and dull.

My disillusionment spread to Nairobi. Although my work is very similar to the last time I lived here, this time I am within a set of expectations, social frameworks, and security guidelines that previously I wasn’t. I no longer discover new areas of town; I barely ever catch a matatu or a boda-boda any more. There’s nothing forbidding me from doing those things, it just wouldn’t make sense: I live within a set of demographic norms that regulate my behaviour as effectively as any written contract. I mix by default mostly with a class of people for whom English is a second or third language and use words like palliative and neologism and germane, and bump into each other delightedly in Istanbul, Goma, and New York. I drink cocktails regularly, and think $7 a pop is a good price at which to do so. I grew bored and lethargic, and was not enjoying myself.

The routine was broken by Christmas. Over the four-day weekend I booked a trip up Mount Kenya and found myself in the company of a Kenyan, a Spaniard and an Australian. We walked for four days: seven kilometres the first, 11 the second, ascending steadily, watching the peak, Point Lenana, grow ever nearer. We slept on bunks in wooden huts and ate noodles and fried meat and vegetables prepared by the team of porters. Day Three was the big one: we left our hut at 3am with the goal of reaching the peak for sunrise. We climbed the steepest part of the mountain for three hours in the dark, scrambling up fine, loose shingle that every few steps ripped our feet from under us like Velcro coming apart. Stars carpeted the sky like the lights of an infinite city. It was -5ᴼ without the wind. We cursed each slip in the pitch dark and the freezing cold, leg muscles burning, trying not to think that we were five hours away from breakfast, and arrived at Point Lenana soon after 6am.

The peak was a place of profound communal misery. People from other groups sat around as in an outer circle of Hell, anger and confusion with the world upon their faces. We huddled in the lee of rocks and were slack and silly with pain. A disgustingly cheery middle aged lady posed for a photo with a watermelon. The Australian later confided to me that the only reason he didn’t kill her was because he was spending his remaining energy on not throwing up. We were so frozen we could barely use our cameras. I put my head between my knees. We sat for fifteen minutes in pugnacious silence before the Spaniard announced that he felt he was going to faint. We descended.


It got better from there, although even three hours later at breakfast, choking down chlorine-y purified water and sliced bread wrapped around lumps of defrosting peanut butter, I was wondering why I was doing this to myself on Christmas Day. The temperature rose steadily, though, and the landscape was spectacular. For the rest of the day we walked steadily downhill, the terrain changing around us: rockland, senecios, bamboo, woodland, lemongrass. After 24 kilometres we arrived at the final camp and had a celebratory Tusker.

The fourth day was just an hour or so’s walk until we were picked up by the car and taken to a matatu stop back to Nairobi. It was good to shower. The combination of sun and wind burn left my skin peeling in the sun vampirically for days afterwards, but the more the ache in my knees receded, the more it felt like it had been a good experience.

I was back to work the next day, and troughed. That week I was forced into sending a polite but firm email to my bosses saying I was unable to work effectively and things had to change. They did, just enough, and three weeks have passed tolerably since then. I delivered a presentation to thirty people on my borderlands project and was received with moderate approval. I wrote an article on it to submit to a journal. I am largely free to do what work I want, which produces inertia, frustration, and enjoyment in various doses, often at the same time. It’s an odd working environment and one that probably will feel better in the long term than the short, but now, for better or worse, is about to change. On Saturday I move to Hargeisa.


What I’m listening to:

  • Songhoy Blues, Music in Exile
  • Alikiba, “Mwana”
  • Yusef Lateef, The Three Faces of Yusef Lateef
  • Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack

What I’m reading:

  • Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind
  • Virgil, Aeneid

Nairobi and Hargeisa

It was a non-transition, in a way; arriving in Kenya felt very much like going into something normal. It had all the trappings of a big change: the many, frequently rushed goodbyes, packing my Limehouse room into two rucksacks and ferrying the remainder to my parents’ house, and flying for many hours with a stopover in Addis Ababa’s great pretender of an international airport, all generating an expectation that things would feel adventurous.

Arriving in Nairobi felt, therefore, unbalancingly routine. Perhaps this was hardly surprising given that I’d lived there for several months not very long ago, and was even living in a familiar area of town. The traffic was still terrible, the wealth divide still stark, the people still laughing. October is a lovely time of year to arrive, not too hot, lilac jacaranda lining the streets and not yet wilting, the giant carapace of the sky clear and blue as jazz. It was good to be back.

I now stay in a guesthouse owned by my employer and share with up to five others, depending on how many people are passing through Nairobi in a given week. As one of only two long-termers it has the feel of living in a hotel, with the attendant perks and drawbacks. I was initially put in a bedroom without access to a bathroom, and it took delicate negotiations with Agnes, the clipped and impenetrable bookings secretary, to move into one of the better rooms. After two weeks of increasingly pointed discussions she moved me into something that is not so much a room as a wing, with a balcony the size of some of the spaces I lived in in London and a family-size bathroom. I was mollified.

My work was slightly unclear to me before leaving UK, and I’m conscious therefore that many of you aren’t sure what exactly it is I’m doing. Let me explain.

I work for Danish Demining Group, a subsidiary of the better-known Danish Refugee Council. DRC focuses on refugees and migration, while DDG focuses on the causes of migration and displacement, especially armed conflict. As well as its eponymous demining wing, DDG has an armed violence reduction wing, which is where I work.

My project is looking at armed violence reduction specifically in relation to border areas in the Horn of Africa. The logic of treating borderlands as areas of particular interest has three explanations: one, Western donors are presently very concerned with international migration, for obvious reasons, of which border crossing in eastern Africa is an important locus. Two, many eastern African countries have recently discovered oil reserves in their hinterlands. Vast tracts of territory that since independence had not been worth governmental attention are suddenly the subject of sharp contestation. Three, border areas are crucial in regional terrorism dynamics, especially with regards to Somalia’s Shabaab.

At present I’m concentrating on the Kenya-Somalia-Ethiopia border, known as the Mandera Triangle, and the Kenya-Uganda border, known as the Karamoja Cluster. Until January, my job is to collate DDG’s institutional knowledge on border security and management and publicise it on a standalone website. The idea is that any organisation interested in border issues will be able to quickly see who’s doing what where, and identify gaps and opportunities to work together.

I now work in the office, unlike my last time when I worked from home. I much prefer it: meeting people, attending staff meetings, and just being around is much more three-dimensional than sitting alone at my kitchen table all day. It does bring challenges though. Malcolm Gladwell talks in his book Outliers about something called the “power distance index”. The power distance refers to how directly subordinates are culturally permitted to challenge superiors. In the USA, and to a similar extent Britain, speaking your mind directly is basically encouraged, especially in the world of work. If you spot a mistake, you are normally expected to report it; if your boss tells you to do something that you can see a weakness or oversight in, it normally reflects well on you to raise it with him or her. The power distance in these cultures is short, and these countries are near the bottom of the index. According to Gladwell, in places such as Korea and Colombia the power distance is much greater, and dealing with tricky work situations must be done far more circumspectly.

I don’t know how much the index is accepted social science, but it’s a useful way of framing differing cultural norms. I would say that Kenya is nearer the top of the index than the bottom, and it’s taking more getting used to than I might have thought. For example, Veronica has my key to my office. She knows that I need it. My assumption is that she will find me and give it to me. This is not the case: she will wait respectfully with the key until I go and ask her for it, even if I don’t know that it exists and spend three weeks politely asking my two office-mates if I can use theirs. In another example, I need to have a meeting with David, and offer him a time on Tuesday or Wednesday. Whichever I confirm, he says the other would be better. After several oscillations I conclude David is pitifully inept, before realising that suggesting another time is a polite way of saying he can’t do either.

In many ways it is learning a new language. My speaking and listening skills are still rudimentary, and the real target of my irritation should be my own literacy level, not the people whose language I’m learning.

For reasons like this my ex-flatmate Barbara, mercifully still in Nairobi, frequently chaperones me around the city in my non-work life, puncturing my vision of myself as a streetwise Nairobian blending perfectly into the crowd. On hearing I was going to a clothes market one weekend she insisted on joining me, and not only because she needed a new pair of work trousers. We wandered into the knotted centre of Toi Market where the cubicle stalls are so stacked with goods you can no longer see the stalls themselves at all, an entire geometry of Vietnamese apparel. Barbara ducked into a tunnel of khaki trousers and began full and frank discussions with its caretaker about the dimensions of her hips. She eventually found a pair that she liked but were too long in the heel. “No problem”, assured the vendor, “the tailor will adjust.”

“How much?” demanded Barbara.

“Very cheap,” evaded the vendor.

“How much?” Barbara called after his disappearing shoulder. “If I have to pay a hundred shillings for this because I’m with your lily-white butt I’m going to be furious,” she hissed at me.


Later, hidden behind a curtain at the back of the stall, I took my jeans off and began trying on the pairs of work trousers that the vendor had given me. I had a paranoid fantasy of a terrorist choosing that exact moment to set off a bomb in the market and having to flee, my picture propelling me to international fame as the mzungu running away from the Toi Market Attacks in pink stripy boxers.

As well as Barbara I met up with a small handful of other old friends, hanging out in their flats or plunging into Nairobi’s glittering, pulsing nightlife. Nairobi’s affluent young are incredibly stylish, the first generation born and brought up in a black middle class and accordingly able to mix a deep exposure to Western fashion with the work of professional African designers. We drank cold beers in the warm nights, watching drunken old men dancing with the gorgeous hookers in the cantinas or going to rooftop bars resounding with Tanzanian r’n’b and Nigerian dance tracks.

After a month, I was sent on my first trip to another DDG office and made my first visit to Somaliland. I flew via Addis again, feeling smug at being part of the small crowd who transferred to a separate terminal for the Hargeisa flight and scowling at two blond tourists for making me look less intrepid.

East Africa is red and green: Somaliland is white. White sand, white walls, white dust, white goats. Hijabs shone turquoise, red, or golden like paint on canvas. There were few people on the streets, which were wide, and often gave onto areas of rubble or scrub with black plastic bags clinging to pointed surfaces. In the centre of town smartly painted banks and hospitals stood out against the weary housing blocks, no structure apart from the minarets rising more than two stories from the ground.

Hargeisa was bombed to the ground by Somali dictator Siad Barre in the late 1980s but won its freedom from him in 1991. It is an irony of the international system that Somaliland, with a bicameral parliament, multi-party elections, its own military, and an independent currency is recognised as a state by zero governments worldwide, while Somalia, barely able to pacify its own capital city since Barre’s demise, is recognised by every government in the world.

Concrete blast absorbers the size of hippos lined the entrance to every compound, watched over by guards dressed in fatigues and carrying old, wooden-stocked rifles. I didn’t see anyone else carrying a gun. We weren’t allowed out alone or after 9pm, and for the week I was there I saw only the office, the guesthouse, and the inside of a van with tinted windows. I went out once, to a shop, full of Turkish biscuits and fizzy drinks. The few photos I managed to take were snatched on the way to and from the airport from the back of the moving pick-up. It didn’t feel unsafe at all, and whether that validated or invalidated the pervasive security I couldn’t tell.

I spent a week there attending a security training. The corridors of the office were lined with disabled ordnance. The Somalilanders laughed a lot and talked more, naughtily picking up their phones and checking their emails despite being told repeatedly not to. They chewed gum with their mouths wide open, filling the lecture hall with obscene quiet squelching. I learned how to say hello and thank you in Somali and practiced frequently, but either my pronunciation was so bad or they were so unprepared for a white newcomer saying Somali words it never elicited a reaction. The men were either indifferent or would greet me with big grins and laugh at everything I said. I would reach towards the women for a handshake before their stillness would remind me. They must have thought an awkward half lurch was a traditional British greeting. In the guesthouse in the evenings I played with Ninja and Elan, the house cats, and watched movies or football with the expats.

In the airport at the end of the week, passengers’ bags were passed through four X-ray machines and our carry-on luggage was unpacked and searched through by hand. We were asked to switch every electronic item on and off in front of the security staff. The painstaking diligence was dispiriting and slow (why is there such a strong urge to get through bureaucracy even when there is only a waiting room on the other side?) but also faintly inspiring. Not just a national security incident but the reputation of a would-be nation is at stake in the security of Egal International, and if was my nation, I’d be diligent too.


I landed in Kenya at 1.30 on Friday morning, not looking forward to catching the minibus to work at 7.30. As soon as I switched my phone on it chirped with a message from Safaricom, my Kenyan network provider: “Welcome home!” it smarmed. OK, I thought.


What I’m reading:

  • David Shields, Reality Hunger
  • Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
  • F Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

What I’m listening to:

  • Ben Pearce, “What I Might Do”
  • Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidananda and P’tah the El Daoud
  • Nina Simone, “Ne Me Quitte Pas”
  • Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire de Melody Nelson
  • Arvo Part, Tabula Rasa